As the local-food movement spreads across the nation, more and more locally sourced fare is finding its way into public schools.
Identifying how divisions can cost-effectively purchase from local farmers was among the topics addressed at this week’s Virginia Farm to School Conference.
“I’m not saying that farm-to-school is cheap. I’m saying that we have to be cost-effective,” said Andrea Northup, farm-to-school coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. “We owe it to our movement to think cost-effectively.”
The two-day conference hosted by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — which brought together farmers, educators and child-nutrition directors from across the commonwealth — was the culmination of a $20,750 U.S. Department of Agriculture farm-to-school grant.
Northup said it’s easy for communities to be swept away by schoolyard gardens and educational programs, and noted their importance, but said school divisions need to concentrate on getting the biggest bang for the bucks they spend on local food.
“Focus on procurement, on getting farmed food into school meals,” she said.
For example, Northup wanted her kitchens to replace powdered mashed potatoes with fresh mashed potatoes. However, because doing so would increase labor costs, she and her team had to get creative.
Ultimately, they discovered that switching to a large Yukon Gold potato was cost-effective for two reasons: the potato’s thin skin doesn’t need to be peeled — which saves labor and time, and thus money — and the larger potatoes last longer.
In fact, Northup said, the students preferred the new mashed potatoes because of the bits of skin.
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” said Christina Connell, nutrition services co-coordinator for Charlottesville City Schools. “I’m definitely going to take that back to the office to discuss, because we would love to do something like that in our centralized kitchen.”
Northup also said farmers can reduce costs on their end. Rather than delivering food in expensive packaging, one farmer Minneapolis Public Schools works with — who supplies the division with butternut squash — builds her own bins from old pallets and harvests the squash directly into the bins.
Doing so, Northup said, saves money for the farmer and still meets food safety standards.
“You can work with your farmers to figure out these ways of doing things that save time and energy,” Northup said.
The Minneapolis division also contracts with local farmers, but there are no written agreements with these smaller vendors. While this sounds scary, Northup said that every farmer but one they have worked with under this model has committed to provide more food the next year.
“In doing so you build a relationship,” Northup said.
What’s more, school divisions can focus on storage crops such as carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash and beets. This approach, Northup said, allows farmers to harvest over time until they have a large enough yield to provide to schools. Also, Northup said, it’s good for farmers, who can continue to make money in the winter months when the growing season has ended.
Connell said she felt like Charlottesville schools were doing a lot already, but after the two-day event she said she sees new steps the division can take.
“We can really take it to another level as long as the supply is there, which is a constant dilemma for us,” Connell said.
First lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe, who spoke at the conference Thursday, said healthy food creates a solid foundation.
“Good nutrition makes such a huge difference for all of us, in terms of our health and productivity, but especially for our children,” McAuliffe said, noting that one in eight Virginians is food insecure. According to www.vafoodbanks.org, that amounts to more than 912,000 people.
Of those, McAuliffe said, 300,000 are children. “As a mother, my heart breaks to think about those children.”
Leanne Dubois, the state coordinator for Virginia’s Farm to School Program, said that communities have made great strides in recent years.
“Charlottesville has done a beautiful job with school gardens,” Dubois said, “and that’s a wonderful way to get kids integrated into the food system.”
Northup also suggested that school nutrition departments develop programs to try out new food, as well as programs to market new food.
Jeanette Abi-Nader, executive director of the City Schoolyard Garden program, said her nonprofit organization is doing just that.
“We have a Harvest of the Month Program, which is both trial and marketing,” Abi-Nader said. “Each month we’re bringing a fresh snack to Charlottesville’s elementary schools, and we’re working to locally source it.”
Established in 2009, the Local Food Hub has built a wholesale market for more than 70 farms from 20 Virginia counties to ensure more locally sourced food reaches schools, restaurants, hospitals and homes from Charlottesville to Richmond and Washington.
“We have a good opportunity to be that person who is aggregating food products from multiple farmers, and then Charlottesville City Schools is really unique in that they have a central kitchen, so we can make one delivery to them, and then they can prepare an amazing snack for their schools,” said Laura Brown, a communications associate with the Local Food Hub.
For community members who want to get involved with their local school division’s food, Dubois suggests contacting the Virginia Cooperative Extension, which is the research and programming arm of Virginia’s land grant universities.
On the whole, McAuliffe said that improving the quality of school food is paramount.
“For too many of our children, their school meals are the best meals of the day,” McAuliffe said. “We can’t expect Virginia’s children to be hungry for knowledge if they’re just plain hungry.”